It's back-to-school time and that means new things to remember. Or not.
Last week, for instance, our 5-year-old forgot his dismissal bus number and was sent to the elementary school office. As he waited to call home, the principal came out and gently asked, "Liam, honey, do you know your telephone number?" To which our son confidently responded, "Yes. Just press 1."
Now, perhaps it is just a sign of the times that in the mind of a kindergartner the Number 1 has come to represent home. And the Number 2 is Dad's office. And the Number 9 is Emilio's Pizzeria. But I'm beginning to think that beneath its moon glow display and zippy ring tone, my cellphone is the kind of ontological commitment that would've made Karl Marx snicker.
A database of contacts, neatly cataloged and classified into groups, has replaced my dog-eared address book. Aural input allows me to bark out commands to an invisible and eternally patient operator: "Go to Babysitters. Call Kelly." [BEEP]. "Did you say, 'Call Kelly'?" [BEEP]. Yes, I like the utility of speed-dial. It does for my mind what the microwave does for my cooking – coagulates chaotic vibrations in the push of a button.
The truth is, however, that in this technocratic age I have come to rely less and less on memory. In fact, I rely less on my own authority altogether.
Daily actions, from the trivial to the critical, are accorded in constant deference to a "record" of things, speedily plucked from my forgiving keypad. "What was the wine we had in St. John?" "Is Tuesday's game home or away?" Seldom will I pause to consider a memory or work off a hunch.
In increasingly innovative ways, my cellphone renders the need to remember a thing of the past. For example, before I receive an incoming call, pixels dance across my one-inch console to broadcast an image of the person calling, attaching for me a face to the name and hence averting the classic party dilemma.
But the future of everyday cellular, I'm told, is quietly moving beyond asynchronous communication to what mobile digerati are calling memory augmentation – an application for recording, organizing, and archiving the elements of your life and then creating sophisticated indexing taxonomies upon which to search and retrieve its details. "What was that cute song our toddler sang in the bathtub?" "Was that a hint of irony in your brother's wedding toast?" A Bluetooth-like appendage registers and compresses the days of our lives and holds them in cache until we need them again.
"The production of too many useful things" Marx warned, "results in too many useless people."
With so many of us slave to tin can memory, our human capacity for identification is jeopardized. Because when we commit things to mind, we become the authors of experience. When we choose to remember, we relate to our most fundamental resource and, in so doing, achieve a unique and perfect balance between representation and meaning.
I think about this as our middle-schooler heads into a new building with the flip-messaging marvel for which she relentlessly petitioned and methodically saved all summer. To the world, she is now known as a seven-digit number. To me, she is precious Number 3. To her, I am (alas!) an abbreviated Bach minuet.
I read once that when the Russian author Leo Tolstoy flunked out of school for the third time, he scripted several rules for self-governance through which he achieved greatness. One resolve was that he would never refer to a book for what he had forgotten, but would "endeavor to recall it to mind" himself.
That was after Gutenberg and before Google. Now more than ever, we've gotta use it or lose it – and occasionally jump out of prescriptive protocol to chase the shadow of memory.